FRANCHISE REWIND: Back to the Future, Part III (1990)

Back to the Future, Part III, 1990 (Michael J. Fox) MCA/Universal

“Marty, the future isn’t written. It can be changed. You know that. Anyone can make their future whatever they want it to be. I can’t let this one little photograph determine my entire destiny. I have to live my life according to what I believe is right in my heart.”

A time travel movie without Mary Steenburgen in the cast is like a day without sunshine. The two go together so well … so well. I’m not being flippant. Time After Time is one of my favorite movies ever. It’s a beautiful, historically anachronistic romance that spans time and space. Back to the Future, Part III reverses the roles however; where Steenburgen was a progressive contemporary feminist in Time After Time, here she plays Clara Clayton, kindly teacher (read: spinster) in 1885 Hill Valley—the “Old West.”

She represents an “Edith Keeler” paradox for Doc Brown who, somewhat accidentally, rescued her from falling into a ravine and dying, thus changing a possible timeline. Fortunately, we don’t get into the “let’s kill Hitler” hysterics of Harlan Ellison. Robert Zemeckis (with his frequent collaborator Bob Gale) wants to craft a harmless love odyssey; something to make the audience feel good after the Rube Goldberg-esque terror trap of time travel and product placement from the previous movie (though we do get Nike cowboy boots—shameless).

When we last left off, Marty was trapped back in 1955 after correcting three separate timelines. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) passed out. Marty brings him back to his house, and now they must get Marty to 1885 to rescue Doc Brown in that timeline’s past. The reason for this rescue is because Marty saw a photo of a tombstone inscription stating Brown was killed by “Mad Dog” Tannen (Biff’s great-grandfather, also played by F. Thomas Wilson).

It only now occurs to me the Tannen geneaology exists to provide a nemesis for each McFly in the respective McFly geneaology, like a kind of Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes, anti-matter to matter, Magneto to Xavier, Khan to Kirk, Joker to Batman, Luthor to Superman, Odie to Garfield, etc. At this point, I would begin to suspect I was God’s play-thing, like Job—just a toy to be abused at the pleasure of the Universe for no reason. Because Brown falls in love with Clara, regardless of his impending murder, he wants to stay in the past with her, which is sweet. It’s nice.

I like that Brown is willing to sacrifice his future to be with the woman he loves. It’s a reckless (yet mature) plot twist from Gale and Zemeckis this time around. However, to know that this is the end of the story leaves much to be desired. It places the trilogy within the context of the character of Doc Brown. The point of the trilogy was not Marty McFly’s (or his family’s) happiness and well-being. The point of the trilogy was for Doc Brown to find true love, and that doesn’t mesh well with plutonium, Libyan terrorists, Goldie Wilson, Pepsi Free, or even time travel.

This wasn’t an intensely satisfying conclusion to the Back to the Future trilogy—it made nearly a hundred million dollars less than the previous movie, even though it was superior in terms of the storytelling. I think audiences were turned off at the idea of a goofy Western. Westerns were dead by that point. It was only when Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven that Westerns became hot again. Some of the visual effects, particularly the doubling-up of McFlys in the same shot, are embarrassingly bad (considering the same team would make Forrest Gump four years later).

Zemeckis is a decent filmmaker (Romancing the Stone is a personal favorite of mine), but he cuts corners in ways Joe Dante or John Landis would never dare. He would go on to make the most overrated movie in the universe, Forrest Gump, as well as some good movies like Cast Away and What Lies Beneath. Recently, he made an unnecessary remake of Nic Roeg’s The Witches, and an unnecessary live-action remake of Pinocchio.

For more Franchise Rewind, visit Second Union!

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